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Nancy Hopkins, Ph.D., Advocate for Women in STEM

Posted on Wednesday, July 10, 2024

By Nicole Kelesoglu

Topic: Environment and social responsibility

Molecular biologist, Nancy Hopkins, Ph.D., led a famous study on the working conditions of women faculty that demonstrated that interpersonal bias existed in scientific fields. New England Biolabs recently hosted the former MIT professor, Dr. Hopkins alongside Kate Zernike, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Exceptions, as special guest speakers. The Exceptions is a new book that tells the story of Nancy and other women scientists’ experiences of career marginalization. The seminar discussion on the problem of implicit bias in scientific fields was intellectually honest, enjoyable, and emotive.

The famous study on the status of women faculty at MIT in 1999 revealed discrimination against women scientists began much earlier. It began when Nancy Hopkins was denied more space for her Zebra fish tanks. She recorded data over decades before she convinced herself, and ultimately, MIT administrators, that women scientists were being discriminated against. The long-term data collection was key to demonstrating the phenomena. Human minds are wired to see harm resulting from inaction as more acceptable than harm caused by direct actions. Data she collected over decades convinced the Dean of Science at MIT to approve a committee-run wider study that included salaries, lab space, honors, time allocations, and compensation for projects outside of teaching and research. The results were eye-opening. Bias by omission, for seemingly small matters such as denied resources or not including women in certain meetings, added up to a pattern of disrespect for scientific talent based on gender. MIT administrators used the study to correct inequities and established a counsel on faculty diversity which was replicated in other schools.  Persistent inequities in resources and recognition sparked a movement revealing the scarcity of high-achieving women in science was not based on a lack of intrinsic aptitude, but rather a lack of opportunities.

NEB thanks Dr. Nancy Hopkins for her advocacy for equity in science.


Nancy Hopkins and Kate Zernike as guest speakers at New England Biolabs









1. You switched your research focus and the approaches you used to investigate biological questions several times in your scientific career. Can you please tell me a little about that?  Would you say you have an adventurous spirit?

From the first hour I learned about DNA, I dreamed that one day it might become possible to work on cancer and investigate human behavior, at the molecular genetic level. That was in 1963 when I was a junior in college. It wasn't clear when it would become possible to work in either of those fields at that level. But incredibly, by the time I got my Ph.D. working on phage lambda, molecular biology had progressed far enough, fast enough so that one could imagine tackling cancer by working with viruses that cause cancer in animals. I switched fields as a postdoc to learn how to work with animal cells from Bob Pollack at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories. That made it possible to switch to working on RNA tumor viruses. At the time, I took a faculty job at MIT in their new Center for Cancer Research. I found the field was fascinating and the timing had been perfect. However, I found the field was not as welcoming as the phage field I had come from. I decided to explore the possibility of working on the genetics of behavior in a vertebrate animal. I went on a sabbatical to look into the zebrafish system which had been pioneered at the University of Oregon. It was not possible at that time to make the leap to study behavior as I had hoped, but I fell in love with the fish. I decided to work on improving technology that could be used to study early development, which is exactly what I pursued. By then I had gotten older, so I began the retirement process. During that time, I became interested in cancer prevention almost by chance. I dove into learning about how many cancer deaths could be prevented by already proven methods, while wrapping up our zebrafish research. It all made sense to me – but I can see how from the outside it might look as if I were hopping around quite a bit. 


2. What were the most significant barriers for women scientists when you began your career?

When I started college, essentially, women could not get jobs in university faculties. Now THAT is a barrier! But it changed dramatically over the next dozen years thanks to social revolutions and laws against discrimination in the U.S. The next biggest obstacle for women was how to have a family in an occupation that had been designed for a man with a wife at home or as the primary caretaker of the family. The third biggest barrier  – to my surprise – proved to be a cultural belief that women really weren’t meant to be scientists. That they were either culturally or genetically unfit. They were less good than men. These cultural biases lead to what is called unconscious gender bias that results in the marginalization and undervaluation of women’s work. Many young women were derailed by sexual harassment but that is not a problem I ever worked on – or experienced – in a serious way myself.

Nancy Hopkins as a student at Harvard and Principal investigator at MIT

Nancy Hopkins as a student at Harvard University and as a principal investigator at MIT


3. What would you say are the most significant barriers for women working in life science today?

Young and senior women scientists tell me that the two greatest barriers are still first, the greater time women spend caring for the family and second, marginalization and undervaluation resulting from unconscious biases. The problems are much less ‘intense’ than in my generation, but they are still there.


4. Reproducibility is a core feature of the scientific method. When you began taking data on gender bias at MIT, did you imagine what the wider implications could be?

Not for one second did it ever cross my mind what the long-term impact would be from the work I did in the 1990s with my female colleagues at MIT. We were only trying to solve immediate problems that made the job much harder than it should have been. We just wanted to be scientists. We needed to explain the problem to those in power so they could then fix it. The data made that possible. We were so lucky to get the support from the MIT administration that made it possible to address the issues. It was important to share what we learned with others. I met women all over the world grappling with the exact same issues. It was fascinating. Once we saw how widespread the problem was it was hard to walk away from it. That’s why I became a long-term advocate for women in STEM.


5. Are there any women involved in overcoming social biases in science that you admire, today?

There are so many.  My colleague Sangeeta Bhatia at MIT. My colleague Lotte Bailyn who works on family-work balance. Sandra Masur at Mount Sinai in New York who has done this work for so many years - long before I started. Then there are the psychologists who illuminated the basis for the problem and continue to work on addressing it - Mahzarin Banaji, Elizabeth Spelke, Virginia Valian. There are dozens that I am leaving out - these jumped into my mind.


6. Can you share examples of specific actions or behaviors by male scientists that you have observed as helpful to female colleagues?

We all observed a spectacular one when Kate Zernike and I visited NEB. Rich Roberts' comments when he introduced us were exceptionally gracious and honest. I was really blown away. He noted that he had not really understood these issues until he read Kate’s book (The Exceptions), and now he saw things he had done himself that might be examples of bias. Few people are big enough to admit they may have been wrong about something like this. I applaud Rich for doing this. You must live this experience to fully understand it. We have to help one another to understand differences. Actually, I’ve known Rich for many years. He was a wonderful supporter of women in his lab, so he is being a little hard on himself. Still, it was a very remarkable moment.

One of the most extraordinary supporters of women of all time was the late Ben Barres. He was transgender. After transitioning he learned firsthand the difference in how women vs men were treated. Then when Larry Summers made his unfortunate speculations about women’s potential “intrinsic” inferiority in STEM abilities, Ben stepped forward and became a one-man national advocate for women. He single-handedly got procedures changed at HHMI, at Stanford, and at NIH, to help advance women in science. It was remarkable. I miss him to this day.


7. How would you expect broadening the talent pool will make science better?

Can you imagine what science would be like today if there had never been Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, or Katy Kariko - and her colleague Drew Weissman of course? It’s painful to think of all the people who could have contributed to science over the years  – including today – who didn't get the chance.

If you believe talent is present in all groups, then of course you are missing more than half of the best talent if you don’t include women and other minority groups that were excluded in the past. Many studies show that diverse groups get better outcomes for many types of work and projects. We can’t know what other people experience completely. They have to be present to tell us.


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